Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Maggie in Taiwan: Part Five

Dear Asia on E Street Readers,

Well, I did it! I finished my last week of school and last week in Taipei. To start this post I would like to share with you all three of my favorite things I have done and seen in Taipei.

One of my favorite things to do around my neighborhood in Taipei is to go eat DanBing(蛋饼) from this stand on near the corner of Heping East Road and XinSheng South Road, near Da’an park, off the alleyway/street of “Wenzhou Street.” This Danbing powerhouse, dare I say has, the best Danbing in the city, and from the long queue of people waiting to get their fix of Danbing, I think the people of Taipei agree. If you aren’t familiar with Chinese/Taiwanese breakfast/streetfood, you might ask what is Danbing? Danbing literally translated is “Egg pancake.” It is a flat, round piece of fried dough filled with scallions with an egg on top. You can then top off this tasty treat with thick soy sauce or, my personal favorite, hot chili sauce. The taste of Danbing is quite indescribable; it is crunchy, salty, and spicy, with the slight freshness of the scallions. This stand is also famous for a pancake like bun filled with shavings of turnip, but my addiction to Danbing prevents me from ever venturing to try this other food. Sadly, watching the cooks make the egg pancake is enough to convince you it can only be a once in a while snack, as their fundamental preparation is being fried in a massive pool of oil. 
Ahhhh! So much mouth watering deliciousness....
cooking in a vat of hot oil 
Finished product (minus hot chili sauce)
Another one of my favorite things about Taiwan/to do in Taipei is to frequently treat myself to a nice cold cup of bubble tea (珍珠奶茶). Taiwan is the home of bubble tea, so for a bubble tea fanatic such as myself I have been in heaven this summer as there is a bubble tea shop on nearly every block in Taipei and the price (usually 1$ a cup) cannot be beat. In fact, I live very close to one of the locations where bubble tea may have been invented! This store offers incredibly high quality bubble tea and at all hours of the day there are long lines. The most unique part of their bubble tea is that their tapioca pearls are soaked in a batch of hot liquid brown sugar – the molasses flavor is second to none. However, my favorite bubble tea chain is Coco. Coco is very common Taiwanese brand and is found not only on the Mainland, but also has locations (which I have visited) in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike on the Mainland, here in Taiwan you can pick how much sugar and ice you want in your tea, perfectly adjusted to match your preferred taste. I am very much going to miss all the bubble tea when I return to the United States, I will have to rely on the Bubble tea food truck that can often be spotted near Gelman library on GW’s campus called “The Cream Shack.”
This is the famous bubble tea place in Gongguan,
if you look closely the man on the sign is actually standing behind the counter taking orders!
Me and my Coco - happy as could be!
 Last, one of my favorite things I have had the chance to do during my stay in Taipei was go and enjoy an hour and a half at the Starbucks on the 35th floor of Taipei 101. This Starbucks is one of the better-hidden things to do in Taipei, as you have to sneakily go in the business entrance of Taipei 101 and acquire a free pass from security before being able to ascend on the superfast elevator. When I recently went, I was lucky enough to have a clear day and was able to see for miles across the city. Unlike other big cities in the world, like New York or Hong Kong, besides Taipei 101, the rest of the city is rather short and thus there doesn’t seem to be a large difference from going to the 89th floor of the building (visitors deck – for $450 TWD) or the Starbucks on the 35th floor (where you just have to buy a drink for a fifth of the price) – the view is still great and isn’t something that should be missed by a visitor to Taipei. Sadly to keep crowds moving along you can only sit in the Starbucks for 90 min before being hustled along – luckily this does not stop you from returning!

This is the view from the Starbucks on the 35th floor of Taipei 101

Taipei 101 from its base
Now that I have discussed some of the highlights of my Taipei experience I would like to present a more critical view point of Taiwan and Taipei, specifically with reference to my language program. As I discussed in my first blog post, ICLP is a one of the most famous places to study Chinese in Taiwan. Before the US established relations with the PRC, it was one of the main destinations for Americans looking to study the language. ICLP is known for its intensity and for specializing on developing student’s spoken Chinese, opposed to reading, writing, and listening capability.

That being said, I cannot say that my experience at ICLP was ideal. To sum it up, my experience was a great example of Murphy’s Law – anything that could have gone wrong, (basically) did go wrong. Despite ICLP’s advertisement that they cater to students who wish to learn simplified characters, against my strong protesting, I was placed in a class that used a traditional character textbook. My first few weeks were dominated by trying to fix this problem, which in the end resulted in packets upon packets of a poorly photocopied version of the simplified textbook. These packets often omitted important parts of what I was to prepare for class, sometimes rendering my hours and hours of studying completely useless for class the next day.

In addition to this textbook issue, I was dissatisfied with my one-on-one class teacher. My teacher was an old Taiwanese woman who had been at the program for quite some time. While she meant no harm, her somewhat stern nature and seemingly strong desire for me to memorize the textbook made me uncomfortable and incredibly nervous and stressed in class – sometimes to the point that I could not get a single coherent sentence out without messing up. At ICLP we are not allowed to open our textbooks during class, so to avoid strict criticism I ended up copying the entire day’s lesson into my notes and during class would slyly look down for clues as to the specific wording of a sentence used in the text. I am not a Chinese teacher, so I cannot say with any certainty, but I do not believe my ability to memorize the textbook is a good reflection of my ability to freely use to the new vocabulary and sentence structures to speak or write my own thoughts. When listening to fellow classmates discuss their one-on-one class experience, mine was not the standard. Many students happily discussed how they used the text as a springboard to discuss their own interests, and use these interests to practice new vocabulary words and sentence structures.

Me and Lu Laoshi, one of my teachers
My last criticism of ICLP is that its structure was not conducive to building community and many of its students did not seem solely focused on language learning and development. When embarking on intensive language student, it is important that you have fellow dedicated students to “吃苦” with, a Chinese phrase, meaning “eat bitterness.” Intensive language study is often not a euphoric activity and requires a high level of dedication and determination to progress. Pursuing goals of language development is hard when you do not have a community with the same goals and level of dedication. I learned the importance of having such a community last summer during my intensive, CET Kunming, where there were only 20 students, almost all of who were determined to abide by the language pledge and worked their damnedest to make large strides in their language abilities. That being said, at ICLP I often found myself wondering where these types of students were. On more than one occasion I would arrive to some of my classes the only one who had thoroughly prepared, or on one or two occasions the only one to show up at all. While I spent many hours doing homework and preparing for the next day’s lesson, my roommate/fellow ICLP student would spend four hours watching Harry Potter.  
My favorite teacher, Weng Laoshi, and me on the last day.
She was a great teacher, making every class fun and fast paced 
This isn't to say there aren’t hardworking students at ICLP. I think ICLP is one of, if not the most rigorous program offered in Taiwan and it indeed attracts high caliber students from the world’s top universities. I, however, did not find the community of language learners that I desired at ICLP. My final conclusion about this whole situation is that ICLP is more suited to graduate students, who perhaps feel less of a need to achieve at all aspects of the language/curriculum and can better sift through what material they truly need to grasp and what can be forgotten. I also think this lack of community and student quality is a symptom of the summer program, as this issue does not seem exist to the same extent during the formal school year (the student population significantly decreases, thus relationships are more easily built).

Again, to restate, these have been my experiences at and thoughts on ICLP, and I know they are the exception and not the rule. The majority, if not all of the students/classmates/friends I have met this summer praise ICLP and have had an amazing summer studying Chinese. Overall, I am happy to say that I have had the experience of studying Chinese in Taiwan. I think that on two levels this experience has been meaningful; one, I am glad I have been exposed to some of the dialectical elements of the Taiwanese version of standard Mandarin and Taiwanese. I think more exposure to the various dialects, or local languages that constitute what we westerners call “Chinese” pushes me as a language learner. Two, I am happy to have gained a greater understanding of Taiwan as a place, people, culture, and political system. For anyone studying China and/or international politics, it is important to be exposed to the Taiwan issue and the thoughts of the Taiwanese people. I feel like I am coming away from this summer with a better understanding of Taiwan, Cross-Strait Relations, and how the Taiwanese view themselves within Cross-Strait Relations.

My favorite classmates at ICLP, all hardworking and humorous!
 This photo is from our final presentation, which I will be uploading soon. 
If I was giving advice to a fellow undergraduate looking to study Chinese on location, I would advise them to go to the Mainland. I would advice them to find a program that offers a tight knit, small community with a pledge to speak Chinese 24/7. Not only do I think this type of program made my language ability excel and excel rapidly, I think I came away from that previous experience with amazing friends and abundant memories. More specifically I would advise them to, if possible, find a program in a tier two city, not Beijing or Shanghai, where their connection to locals are more direct and there are fewer foreign English speakers or people who speak English in general.

 I am grateful for my time in Taiwan and I view it as an important step on my journey to mastering Chinese.

With that I sign off my written summer blog posts (except for one last video of my final Chinese presentation). I hope you all have enjoyed reading about my experiences in Taiwan and my thoughts about the language program I attended. If there are any people out there who wish to know more about my experience, or have specific questions, I would welcome you to email me at mwedeman@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Maggie Wedeman

No comments:

Post a Comment